Shannon O’Brien’s introduction to the racewalk was an inauspicious one, to say the least.
It was in the spring of 2018, O’Brien’s freshman year at Riverhead High School, when an assistant coach at the time, Justin Cobis, approached her with a request.
O’Brien recalled: “I remember it was like the day of or the day before a meet, and he just pulled me aside and was like, ‘I really want you to try the racewalk. Just do it in this one meet, and if you hate it, then you won’t ever do it [again].’ ”
How did she do in that race?
“I was way last and I’m pretty sure I might have gotten disqualified, too,” she said.
One just had to laugh at the thought, considering how far O’Brien has come and where she was Wednesday. The Riverhead High School graduate was one of only seven athletes who competed in the 3,000-meter racewalk at The Outdoor Nationals, a National Scholastic Athletics Foundation event at the University of Oregon’s historic Hayward Field.
This was no walk in the park.
O’Brien, 18, of Wading River, took her place with some of the nation’s best. She finished seventh in 17 minutes, 10.81 seconds, in her first race at that distance.
“I was just like very excited just to be there and have the experience,” she said, “but after the race, I feel like I was a little disappointed with how I did.” She explained, “I had a really strong start and then faded the last two laps.”
The competition was no joke, either. Madison Morgan of Houston took the lead early, continued pulling away at a blistering pace and won in a meet-record time of 14:12.66. That shattered the previous mark of 14:24.63 that Taylor Ewert of Beavercreek, Ohio, set in 2017.
The closest competitors to Morgan were Talia Green of Oakland (14:36.10) and Adeline Johnson of Belvedere, Calif. (14:58.44). The next three finishers were Mia Priore of White Plains (15:44.63), Maya Judice of Dayton, Maine (16:49.43) and Calley Starr of J.C. Spirit Track Club of Oregon (16:54.50).
O’Brien said when she reached the finish line, “I was just pretty exhausted and happy for it to be over.”
The scheduled eight-walker field was reduced to seven after Caelin Sloan of Florence, S.C., withdrew because of a foot injury, said a commentator.
Cher Armstrong (Class of 2005), holder of Riverhead’s record in the 1,500 racewalk (7:59.40, set in 2004), watched the race via livestream. She was impressed by what she saw from O’Brien, who she called one of the best track athletes Riverhead has produced.
“Oh my gosh, she definitely has a lot of potential,” Armstrong said. “I noticed like one or two tiny things, which is actually a good thing because it means she has the potential to be a lot better with just a couple of tweaks. She could be great at this.”
Armstrong, who was on the Stony Brook University women’s track team, walks for the Raleigh Walkers club in North Carolina. She said she met O’Brien a few times and has been corresponding with her mother, Linda, on Facebook.
Armstrong sensed O’Brien had something special years ago. “I remember thinking, ‘Is this going to be the girl that breaks my school record?’ ” she said.
O’Brien was shooting for Armstrong’s school record when she entered the 1,500 racewalk at the Section XI Championships June 13 at Commack High School. She got something else.
Although O’Brien fell short of the 17-year-old school record she was aiming for, she walked fast enough to clock 8:03.90, bringing her sixth place, but more importantly achieving the qualifying time for The Outdoor Nationals. In the process, she did break a 16-year-old Riverhead senior class record, said Riverhead coach Maria Dounelis.
(O’Brien finished one place behind Shoreham-Wading River senior Torre Ann Parrinello, who was timed in 7:55.22 at the sectional meet.)
It takes a tough athlete for a tough event. The racewalk is a grueling, technical specialty that isn’t for everyone. Some athletes walk away from the racewalk after trying it. By rule, racewalkers must remain in contact with the ground and keep their legs straight at all times. Not easy.
“Shannon’s just mentally strong,” Dounelis said. “She doesn’t let things get to her. When she sets her mind to something, she just does it.”
This past season O’Brien went undefeated in six dual meets. “She worked her butt off, and I was just so impressed because every single race she just got better and better,” said Dounelis.
Results aside, The Outdoor Nationals was an experience to remember for O’Brien. She called it “an amazing, once-in-a-lifetime thing, and I’m so glad I was able to go.”
Four years ago, such an experience would have been hard to imagine.